Today Islam Is Still Misunderstood, Misappropriated and Misinterpreted. Why Is This True?

Today, Islam is still misunderstood, misappropriated and misinterpreted. Why is this true? Recently, I was asked to give a talk to US government officials and someone commented on a question I presented in my talk: Is Islam a violent religion? (Obviously, the answer is no.). The official in the audience stated that there is a sizable group of Americans who do believe that Islam is violent, barbaric, and savage. 

Islam is a loving, peaceful religion. So why are the ignorant still ignorant? 

Ignorance breeds hatred. That hatred leads to violent action, which explains, in part, why some Muslim men and women engage in terrorist attacks. This is especially true of some Muslim converts, who foolishly believed that killing in the name of Islam is justified. I write about this in my new book, Invisible Martyrs

Deadly Women & Girls

In my research and interviews, I discovered Muslim convert Shannon Conley. She tried to leave Denver International Airport to join ISIS and was arrested before her plane departed. In the courtroom, she told Judge Moore: “Even though I supported jihad, it was never to hurt anyone.” 

In another chapter of my book, I sketch the women and girls of war-torn Iraq, some of whom joined Al Qaeda to become female suicide bombers. One of those girls, who was shown on Iraqi television with a suicide vest underneath her oversized abaya, said she was duped. Her insurgent husband told her they would meet in husband. Teenager Rania Ibrahim was street-savvy but not a violent killer. She told my friend, the first reporter to interview inside an Iraqi police station four hours after Rania’s capture, that she “did not want to kill anyone.” 

Her mother and aunt told her to put on the suicide belt and detonate at a checkpoint in an act of revenge.


I’ve been studying female terror since 2000 and began to publicly report my findings and share women’s stories in 2007 and 2008. I gave numerous lectures around the country and in international cities about the emerging threat, but no one paid much attention.

Until now. When women and girls have proven that they, too, can be deadly, dangerous and devious.

A Simple Question – Why Now?

Years ago, I began with a simple question. Why now? See my slides below. 

A decade later, we’re asking similar questions. Why is this trend slowly rising and what can we do to help vulnerable women and girls inside conflict and in Western countries who join violent extremism?

First, definitions matter. Female terrorists have been called mujahidaat (female fighters) and muhajiraat (female migrants). Both are accurate. Women are both fighters and many migrate or travel to conflicts called by men to act in the name of a cause & country. 

In my work, I make the distinction between women living in conflict, who are exposed to violence, trauma, corruption, human rights violations versus women living in the West, who are seemingly free and not exposed to daily violence. We know, however, that even Western females who join terror groups have been abused, violated, tormented, etc. 

Today, we have true-life stories of women and girls –victims of domestic / sexual violence–who are vulnerable to terrorist recruitment. Consider Jihad Jane, whose real name is Colleen LaRose from Philadelphia, who was raped by her father as a child repeatedly; when she left home, she became a prostitute and then turned to drugs before she found Islam at a later age in life.

As a new Muslim convert, LaRose may have found her purpose in life and joined a worldwide community, albeit the wrong community, but her childhood wounds and trauma were unresolved. 

A Long History

Since I have been studying this subject for nearly 20 years, I have historical memory. I can look back at the many women and girls in my files and recall their stories. Which is why I know that the threat of female terror is not new. This is not unique. 

Female terrorists have a long history.

Eileen MacDonald proved this in her seminal book, Shoot the Women First, telling the stories of female “revolutionaries” from Italy, Germany, Northern Ireland, North Korea to the Palestinian territories, who conducted acts of violence for a plethora of reasons. One of them was to be on equal footing with men and to change the conflict in which they lived. 

However, it is true that the threat is evolving and multi-faceted. And that is an ugly truth that demands greater attention.

Looking for Answers

There is no one solution in counter-terrorism. However, as an American Muslim woman, knowledge is the first step to countering ignorance and hatred. 

Education must be part of the solution. When I lecture, I make it clear that critical thinking skills are important in Islam. A famous oral tradition from the Prophet encourages discourse. Muslim families, including parents who conflate their culture with religion, have a responsibility to educate themselves in classical Arabic and then pass that knowledge of a lived, peaceful Islam to their children and communities. 

Without awareness of the truth, ignorance will prevail. And that is unIslamic. 

Awareness of a problem and subject is followed by action. In this case, there is a need for more female case officers, counselors, social workers, practitioners, educators, and community leaders to help vulnerable girls and women. When more women are engaged and enlightened, they can address the needs of women and girls who need help, attention, time, stability, and much more. 

These women and girls need our empathy, said an American female government official. I couldn’t agree more.

Women are key to mitigating the worldwide threat before it’s too late.

To read more stories of radical women and solutions, click here for Invisible Martyrs.


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